Tips for auctiongoers: setting limits, judging worth

Are auctions on your agenda for spring and summer? If they are, and you are a novice auction buff, you should plan your strategy before getting involved in what could be a very costly experience.

Auctions have long been a well-accepted method of disposing of estates or selling merchandise. Accounts of ancient Roman auctions bear a striking similarity to today's auction reports. One factor has held constant over the centuries: The bidder, or customer, determines the price.

That's either the flaw or the beauty of the system, depending on your viewpoint. An old-time auctioneer laughingly explains: ''I just ask them what they want to pay. At almost any auction there's always one item that attracts two fools. One fool's not enough, there's got to be two. They go at each other like there's no tomorrow. But what can I do? It's their money.''

Something about the mystique of an auction, the feeling that any minute one is going to get the bargain of the century or the ''sleeper'' of the sale, breeds the rush from caution and the inability of the bidder to lower his hand until he has gone over his limit. Frequently a bidder has no discernible idea of the value of the item being auctioned. This leads to the question often asked by the winner of an item: ''What's it worth, anyway?'' Most neophytes don't appreciate an informed answer.

Professionals agree that there are rules for attending auctions. Learning them won't guarantee peace and tranquillity or a solvent checking account, because even experts occasionally get carried away by auction fever. But they do give you something to aspire to.

The primary rule for the auctiongoer is one that, when disobeyed, has caused greater grief than any other: Never bid on an item you haven't inspected. All auctions offer an inspection period, usually for a few hours prior to the actual auction. Don't miss it. Once the auction starts it's too late. Most auctions bar spectators from the storage area once the auction has begun.

There's a good reason for inspecting items before bidding on them. Almost all auctions sell their offerings on an ''as-is, where-is'' basis. That means what you see up there on the auction block is what you're bidding on: no verbal descriptions, no written descriptions, just the item itself.

The auctioneer may call out, ''This is a fine old Hepplewhite sideboard, folks!'' If you've examined the piece during the inspection, you may have discovered it's a 1940s-era copy. The auctioneer may think it's old, but if you imagine you're bidding on an 1800 original you're about to be disappointed. His verbal description is valueless. You have to be the judge of the piece. This is not to imply auctioneers are dishonest - it's the rare one who is - but they are human.

A written description or printed catalog listing may be more accurate. These vary from auction house to auction house, but there are no universal iron-clad guarantees. Some houses will take back items incorrectly described; others won't. Catalogers and auction house employees have been known to err. The buyer is the ultimate judge of the piece being auctioned. The importance of that inspection period, even for experts, looms large as the potential value of a piece rises.

That brings up the next important question: How does one set a limit, or value, for a piece? Many auctiongoers have solved that perplexing question by asking another: ''What would I pay for this piece if I saw it in a dealer's shop and wanted it?'' The answer to that is simple. Visit a variety of shops and see what similar items sell for. When you inspect the piece being offered at auction , try to judge it by the shop piece. Grade it up or down, and try to adjust the price accordingly.

Other people rely on price guides. These books list prices for a variety of antiques and collectibles. The flaw in using price guides is that often they are out of date, lacking in descriptions, or invalid for reasons the reader can't discern, such as recording a price realized at a prestigious auction of a well-known collection. Such an auction could well result in prices double or triple those of an average auction.

Most dealers believe the safest method of setting a limit is the actual comparison method. If the potential buyer has accurately priced similar pieces at the shops, he or she should be able to bid competently on the piece at the auction. That's not to say the bidder will get that piece. Another bidder may have a much higher opinion of it. But if the disappointed bidder really wants a piece like the auction one, he or she can now go back to one of the dealers visited and buy one for less than the auction price.

A rule that can keep you from overspending and save you embarrassment is this: Always listen to the auctioneer. Don't necessarily believe him, but do listen to him. At almost every auction at least one bidder will call a halt to the proceedings and cause the crowd to erupt into laughter with a scene like this: ''What do you mean, $60 each? I thought that was the price for the whole lot. Does that mean $60 times five?''

Usually the auctioneer will take the lot back and re-auction it, but what if he won't? It's much safer to listen. There's another hazard, too. More than one auctiongoer has thought he was bidding on one item, only to discover to his horror the auctioneer was selling something else. An auctioneer can easily sell 60 to 80 items an hour. If you don't listen, you could be sorry.

Another small rule can ease the novice auctiongoer's lot. Make certain you can remove whatever you buy at the auction. Don't leave items. Once you've bought a piece, you own it. The auctioneer may let you store what you've bought in the auction hall, but if anything happens to it, he's not responsible.

Save yourself another problem by making certain the auction will take your check or charge card before bidding. A lot of auctioneers won't take out-of-state checks. Find out. You may have to open an account first and delay bidding until a later auction. The best medium is that old standby, hard cash.

How can you keep from getting caught up in the bidding and going over your limit? There's no easy way. Some bidders refuse to go even one bid over their predetermined limit. There is sense in that method. If you've set $100 for your limit and someone else has bid $105, when the auctioneer calls out to you, ''I've got one-five, how about one-ten, sir? It's only five dollars,'' it isn't only five dollars, its $10. If the other bidder comes back with a bid, your next bid means you will be $20 over your limit. The little raises are the ones that end up boosting bidders over their limits.

For the bidder who exceeds the preset limits, there is some solace in knowing that the biggest dealers in America occasionally get carried away and exceed them, too. On Dec. 16, 1981, a representative of the New York firm of Israel Sack Inc. got involved in some heavy bidding on a Chippendale chest-on-chest at a small Vermont auction. When the hammer fell the firm owned the piece for a final bid of $150,000. According to one printed report, the firm authorized its bidder to go only to $100,000. But once that limit came he just kept bidding.

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